Cuba’s Urban Gardens: The Other Side of the Coin

Isbel Diaz Torres

HAVANA TIMES – To expand on my previous post dealing with Cuba’s urban vegetable gardens, or organoponicos, I would like to share a number of thoughts on the main health risks stemming from urban or semi-urban agriculture.

I would like to say beforehand that, despite these criticisms, I consider this agricultural model far less harmful than technologically-intensive forms of extensive agriculture, whose environmental impact has been catastrophic (as the so-called “Green Revolution” that began in the mid-20th century clearly demonstrated).

Urban and semi-urban agriculture can have both positive and negative effects on human health and environmental conditions. The most significant impact may be the contamination of crops with pathogens such as bacteria, protozoa or viruses, resulting from irrigation using contaminated water or sewage that has not been adequately processed, or owing to solid organic residues.

These residues are commonly made up of household or market waste products, sewage, human excrement, manure and agro-industrial residues which are occasionally used to improve soil quality.

It is true that, in Cuba’s case, the greater part of solid organic residues come from the work done within the urban garden itself, but this does not exclude the possibility that other residues are used.

Composting is the recommended way of processing urban organic residues. This isn’t always done, or it is done incorrectly. The result is that pathogens are not eliminated and that rodents and insects that can carry disease are drawn to the site.

The presence of non-degradable materials can also cause those who work in these places injuries and infections. Pollution with heavy metals can also result from the mixing of organic materials with industrial waste.

Another negative effect of these practices is contamination with residues from agro-chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. As a general rule, these types of substances are barred at urban vegetable gardens, but, the fact of the matter is that they are used in Havana, particularly as a pest-control mechanism.

That fact alone could suffice to discredit the program as a whole, but it is done in secret, in order to guarantee greater productivity and thanks to the way these gardens operate outside community control.

The fact these gardens are not integrated into the community makes it next to impossible for them to obtain residues that can be used as nutrients from surrounding homes or industry.

In addition, the risk of contamination by agro-chemical residues, polluted water or solid organic residues grows exponentially in the cases of urban gardens located close to garbage dump-sites.

The notorious case of Cuba’s largest dumpsite, located on 100 St, in Havana’s neighborhood of Marianao, is illustrative of this. Its residues have affected nearly all surrounding crops, both at urban vegetable gardens and traditional croplands.

Under these types of conditions, as in those in which crops are close to highways, contamination through the absorption of heavy metals found in soils, air or water, is a dangerous risk.

Only the community’s real involvement in the handling of such spaces could guarantee the efficient protection of crops against the many contaminating agents out there. Cuba, however, has merely created more State establishments, akin to rationed product points, where vegetables are simply sold, and, to top things off, in a manner subordinate to the inefficient Ministry of Agriculture.

In general, customers only demand a good supply of products and affordable prices, and do not concern themselves with the quality of the production process, those who work there or the harmlessness of the product.

They are helpless consumers, exactly what the system has produced.

I don’t want to conclude without first restating my position on this. The “Green Revolution” brought considerable storage problems, excessive seed and complementary technology costs, technological dependence, the loss of traditional crops and the appearance of new plagues, all the while leading to mega-projects in which individuals ceased being farmers to become countryside laborers.

At the other end of the spectrum, ecological agriculture, of which urban and semi-urban agriculture and organoponics are part, is aimed at the reduction of urban food insecurity, greater access to food products, improved diets for the low-income population, better physical and psychological health, improved hygienic conditions and broader green spaces in people’s immediate surroundings.

Let us prevent the State from once again destroying a viable option. Let’s make it our option.


Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Urban Gardens: The Other Side of the Coin

  • Misguided, unsubstantiated, and frustratingly vague. This is a bunch of opinions claimed as facts. Where are your sources of information??

  • Isbel Diaz Torres, hopefully people informed and involved like you will increase your ability to share your knowledge and create improved sharing of information and production standards. Clearly a non-profit consumer information exchange system is needed. Here in the US consumers do supposedly have protections, but the state agencies are also inefficient and often bought off by the mega-producers. The wise consumer tries to by from farmers markets or if they have the extra money, from supposed natural food sources. We in the US have lots of information sources, but this only educates a very small portion of the public. I wish you and all Cubans good health.

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